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Chapter One:  Bessie


BESSIE

Monday, May 19, 1941

My sister says I’m more comfortable around machines than I am around men. As usual, she’s right. I don’t know the first thing about caring for a man, but I have an intimate relationship with every machine in this room. I know their quirks and weaknesses, their sticky handles and messy trays. Over the last twelve years, I’ve kept old equipment running right up until its last breath and welcomed new and improved models with open arms. At the end of the day, I thank the Lord for Phillips Petroleum and Bartlesville, Oklahoma. There’s no place I’d rather be.

This evening is no different. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I arrange the pages of the latest Phillips 66 sales report, ready for collating in the morning. A light breeze swims in and out of the tall open windows along the back wall and the unmistakable scent of fresh ditto copies swirls around me. Folks love the way the purple ink smells, when the fact of the matter is, there’s no ink in a ditto machine. Not one drop. Every crank of the handle spreads duplication fluid, thin as silk, over the master and skims off just enough purple wax to make a copy. The wax is what they see, but the intoxicating, almost floral scent—that’s the duplication fluid. Now, a mimeograph’s a different kettle of fish. A typewriter, without a ribbon, stamps out stencils for ink to fill. Mimeograph copies are sharper, but they sure don’t smell as good.

“Hey, Miss B. You taking the bus home this evening?” A young woman’s voice rings in the quiet room. The motors that hummed and whirred all day are down for the night.

“Hello, Martha.” I close the large windows one by one. The chain and pulley systems jangle as each sash glides shut. “You know, I’m thinking about walking home. Doesn’t look like we’re going to get any rain.”

“Sure doesn’t. Well, I just want to thank you for your help last week. I’ve been asking my mother-in-law lots of questions about Daniel—questions about when he was little, holiday traditions, and favorite foods. And then I’ve been listening to her. Just listening like you told me to. We’re getting along so much better, it’s like a miracle.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I say. Martha got married in March and her mother-in-law arrived last week to stay through Memorial Day. Being the wife of someone’s only beloved son can’t be easy. I wonder how my sister Florence will treat Johnny’s future bride? She might make life difficult as well.

“Have a nice walk home, and thanks again for the advice. You’re the best,” Martha says.

“Anytime. Good night.” I say a quick prayer for her as I finish tidying up my desk.

Dear Lord Jesus, spread your glorious blessings of love and faith on Martha Williams and her husband Daniel. Grant them wisdom and patience as they grow to know one another and grow in your love. Amen.

I push my eyeglasses back onto the bridge of my nose.

Oh, and help me get used to wearing these new glasses. Amen, again.

“Another satisfied customer?” Anna Porter pops her head around the doorframe.

“Why do they come to me?” I say with a chuckle.

“Oh, let’s see, Bessie,” Anna says as she walks into the room, “you’re one of the kindest people I know, the best listener in Washington County, and you make everyone feel special—even me.” She bats her eyelashes and puts her hands over her heart. “Besides, you give good romantic advice.”

“How can I give good romantic advice? I can hardly talk to a man without stuttering. I’ve never been married. I’ve never even been engaged,” I remind her.

“Must be your special gift. Are you taking the bus home?”

“Nope. I feel like walking.” I pull my purse out of the desk drawer and put on my gloves.

“Care to join me?” she asks.

“Love to.”

“You’re quite the dish in those new specs.”

“Well, my vision is going. Florence says that’s the way it is over forty. Everything starts to go.” I turn out the lights and head down the first-floor hallway with Anna by my side. It takes two of my quick, little steps to keep up with one of her long, effortless strides.

“Those glasses look great on you. I love the little gems in the pointy corners at the top.”

“In a thousand million years, I never would have bought these for myself,” I reply.

“Did Florence pick them out?”

“Of course she did. When she found out I needed glasses, she bought five magazines and did research for a week!”

“Why do you let her make these important decisions for you?” Anna asks.

“Oh, it makes her happy.”

“What else did she discover in her extensive research?”

“Turns out if you have a round face like I do, you should avoid round glasses as they can make your face appear chubby,” I report. “The cat-eye style is the most flattering option for my facial shape.”

Anna’s shoulders shudder with silent laughter. “Did she share any other fashion tips with you?”

“Let’s see, I shouldn’t consider my new glasses a beauty handicap. Oh, no! I should embrace them as I would a fine piece of jewelry, employ them as a new tool to help augment my overall image.” We’re both giggling now. “I am also supposed to wear my hair pulled back low and loose around my shoulders whenever I need to create a glamorous effect. As if I, Bessie Blackwell, will ever have an occasion which requires a glamorous effect.”

“You know Florence loves you to pieces. And you have to admit, those pink frames look dynamite on you,” she says as her laughter subsides.

“Thank you. I get compliments on them every day.”

“You don’t sound particularly happy about the attention.” Anna pushes one of the heavy entrance doors open and we step out into a beautiful May evening.

"Picking out new glasses may have been a fulfilling side project for my sister, but it’s left me feeling old,” I say as we join the flow of people walking toward Johnstone Avenue. The sidewalk bustles in skirts and suits as people pour out of the downtown offices. “Now that I’m forty-three, I’ve decided I’m no longer going to think of myself as an old maid. Instead, I’m going to refer to myself as a spinster. Yes, spinster has a more glamorous effect. Don’t you agree?”

“Nonsense.” Anna links her arm in mine. “You’re no spinster. You’re just incredibly patient. You’re still waiting for Mr. Right to come along and sweep you off your feet.”

“Ever the optimist,” I bump my hip into her thigh as we walk.

“One of these days, you’re going to plop down next to me in the cafeteria and say, ‘Anna, I’ve met someone.’ I’ll bet you two bits.”

I roll my eyes, “Trust me. If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be happy to pay up.”

“You’d better,” Anna says with a huff. “How’s life at Henderson House?”

“Oh, fine and dandy. Mr. Clark moved out over the weekend, took a job in Texas. Mrs. Henderson asked Eddie if he wanted to switch rooms. Mr. Clark was in room number one, the big sunny one, but my brother said he was as happy as a clam in high water in room number four. Mrs. H. already had an interview lined up for today—another engineer.”

“Let’s hope he has more personality than Mr. Clark.”

“At least the engineers are quiet. The salesmen are too chatty for my liking.” My stomach churns at the thought of stammering through polite conversation with a stranger at the dinner table tonight.

“My boss says they’re hiring more ‘Whiz Kids’ for a special aviation fuel project over at the research facility,” Anna says. “Where is this guy moving from?”

“San Francisco. His name is Frank Davis.”

“A vacant room at Henderson House won’t last for long. He’d be a fool not to take it.”

“He’ll have to pass Mrs. H.’s rigorous, if peculiar, interview process first,” I say.

“Mildred Henderson is an odd duck. Does she still use the cookie test?”

“Absolutely.”

“They broke the mold when they made her.” Anna shakes her head. “Are you stopping at the store for Florence on your way home?”

“No, she’s closing tonight. Besides, she never wants to walk, and it’s a lovely evening.”

“Is she still antsy to leave the boarding house?” Anna asks.

“Sure is. She went on and on at supper the other night about how close we are to having enough in the savings account to go house hunting—urging me and Eddie to watch every penny. The next day she bought Johnny a new baseball glove.”

“She loves to spoil that boy.”

“Oh, who can blame her? He’s tops on my list, too.”

“Funny how Florence’s rules never seem to apply to Florence,” she says. “I’m crossing here—need to pick up something for Wyatt at the pharmacy. Hope to see you tomorrow, and really, you look fabulous.” Anna blows me a kiss and starts for the crosswalk. Anna and Wyatt never had children. It’s a shame. She would have been a wonderful mother.

I peek through the front door at Linn Brothers, the men’s clothing store where my sister works. No sign of Florence in action, but her talent shines in the new window displays. She’s arranged the lightweight men’s suits, casual wear, and summer hats in a picnic setting. A red and white checkered blanket, wicker basket, and a stack of books occupy the center, with fishing gear and canoe paddles on either side. I stop and admire the scene before continuing on my way. The walk from downtown to Henderson House takes less than thirty minutes and I must admit, these stack-heeled, lace-up oxfords Florence picked out are mighty comfortable. We’re practically the same size and can shop out of each other’s closets, mix and match. When we were children, people thought we were twins. Florence was quick to point out I was the older sister, if only by fourteen months, truth be told.

I walk one more block through town and head south. Almost immediately, the brick storefronts turn to houses and tree-lined streets. Rows of elms create a tunnel of shade this time of day. Flickering patterns of sunlight dance on the sidewalk. Our street transitioned from the yellow of forsythia to the white of spirea this month. I take in a stray whiff of honeysuckle before the smell of peonies hits me. A mass of blooms erupts in front of the house on the corner every spring. The enormous blossoms are such a deep pink you could almost mistake them for red—the same dark, reddish pink of an Oklahoma sky the morning before a storm.

As I get closer to Henderson House, I hear the thump of a baseball landing in a glove, a pause, and the thud of the ball landing in another glove. The front yard comes into view and I see my tall, skinny nephew. The neighbor’s large privet hedge blocks who’s playing catch with him. I doubt Tommy Westfeldt would be over on a Monday evening, though Johnny and Tommy have been thick as thieves lately. Florence constantly tries to connect Johnny with the top families in Bartlesville, and she’s hit a home run with this one.

I study my nephew in the distance. He’s growing again—nothing but legs and elbows. Johnny’s in such an awkward phase. “No longer grass and not quite hay,” as my mother used to say. I’m still on the fence about his new haircut. It’s clipped short on the sides and longer on the top so he can part it and comb the center section over. It’s a complicated haircut for a thirteen-year-old boy, but Florence likes Johnny to appear fashionable and with this style, I suppose he does. Johnny’s high cheekbones and strong nose make him look far more Cherokee than the rest of the family, which is the other reason for his fancy hair; Florence doesn’t want Johnny to look like an Indian.

Somewhat eager to discover who Johnny’s roped into playing with him, I quicken my pace. As I come round the hedge, the man at the other end of the toss becomes visible. There’s something familiar about him. Is it the tilt of his head? The way he leans forward as he throws the ball? I can’t put my finger on it, but I could swear I know him already.

“Nice catch,” the man says to Johnny.

“Thanks, Mr. Davis. You’ve got a natural slider working there.”

“Really? Who knew?” the man says, gesturing with his hands.

This must be Frank Davis, the engineer from San Francisco. Suit coat draped over the porch railing, shirt sleeves pushed up, and tie flapping in the wind, he appears to be a young man in his late twenties. The gray fedora on his head teeters—ready to take flight.

“Good evening,” I say.

“Aunt Bessie!” Johnny puts down his glove, grabs my hand, and drags me over to meet Mr. Davis. “Aunt Bessie, this is Mr. Davis. He moved in today. Mr. Davis, this is my Aunt Be.., my Aunt, Miss Elizabeth Blackwell.” I sure love it when my boy uses his good manners.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Davis.” Turns out he’s not a young man. Mr. Davis is my age, maybe a little older. He’s not as tall as Mrs. Henderson, but he’s well proportioned—a complete man in a small package.

“And it’s nice to meet you,” he says. “Johnny’s been giving me the full rundown on the family.”

“Oh, he has, has he?” I raise an eyebrow at Johnny.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” Mr. Davis offers in Johnny’s defense.

“I’m sure it didn’t take much prying.”

“I must admit, I’m more than a little curious to get the back story on how two sisters, a brother, and a teenager all ended up living here—and for so long,” He laughs a sweet, melodic laugh. I bet he has a delightful singing voice.

“Well, I usually leave the family storytelling to my brother, Eddie. I’m afraid your curiosity will have to wait until supper, Mr. Davis.”

He smiles at me, and I smile back. I like his round wire-rim glasses. They don’t make his kind, round face look chubby at all. They suit him perfectly. I can’t say if his eyes are brown or green. They must be hazel. I search for a word to describe him, and the only one I can come up with is...adorable. This man is one-hundred percent adorable. Realizing I’m staring, I snap my head in Johnny’s direction.

“I’m going upstairs to change out of my office clothes, and then I want to check on the flower project before supper. Will you join me, Johnny?”

“Sure, Aunt Bessie. Mr. Davis and I were finishing up.”

“The flower project?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Every spring, Johnny and I start flowers from seeds, transfer the seedlings into crates out in the garden, and plant them at our family plot in Claremore for Decoration Day,” I say.

“Only this year, we’re going to the cemetery a week early,” Johnny explains. “We’re going this Saturday instead of on Memorial Day next Friday. And I’m not going at all because my friend Tommy’s dad helped me get a job as a caddy at Hillcrest Country Club. I start this weekend.”

“I’d love to see the flower project if you don’t mind some company,” Mr. Davis says.

“Of course not. It will just take me a moment to change. I’ll meet you out back behind the kitchen in a few minutes.” I head up the porch steps. Johnny continues to chat up Mr. Davis.

“The flower project is pretty involved,” he says. “We grow specific flowers or colors of flowers for specific people, to honor them. Aunt Bessie and I have it all mapped out. We do it every year.”

Johnny’s voice fades as I enter the house. The door to Mrs. Henderson’s suite is open.

“Bessie? Is that you?” she calls from her settee.

“Yes, Mrs. Henderson, I’m home.”

“Pop your head in for a minute, dear.”

As expected, she’s perched on her green velvet settee, the most recent letter from her oldest son, Robert, in her hand. She’s read his letter a dozen times over the past few days. Mrs. Henderson still dresses in the long-flowing styles of the 1930s. Florence constantly tries to get her to embrace shorter skirts and tailored blouses. I like the way Mrs. Henderson looks in her ankle-length dresses with flutter sleeves or bertha collars, graceful and refined.

“Did you meet Mr. Davis?” she asks.

“Yes, I met him out front playing ball with Johnny,” I say. Mrs. Henderson’s windows are open. I’m sure she heard the whole conversation.

“He’s a fine fellow, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, it appears so.”

“I know sometimes you’re uncomfortable when a new man moves into Henderson House, at least until you get to know them, but have a good feeling about Frank Davis. You know me and my feelings,” she trails off.

“Yes, ma’am. There is no disputing your God-given intuition.”

“Louie likes him, too. Took to him right off the bat.” The dog glances up at his name.

Mrs. Henderson stands, places the letter in a silver tray on the small table next to her settee, and walks toward the back door of her suite. When she turned Henderson House into a boarding house, she converted the first-floor parlor into her private suite with a bath. Her suite has two doors—one opens to the foyer, the other to the kitchen.

“I’m curious,” she turns to face me, “what word came to mind when you met him?”

It is uncanny how often she knows what I’ve been thinking. There’s no getting around the truth with Mrs. Henderson.

“Adorable,” I confess. Then I turn on my heels to head upstairs to change.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: Florence